Linebacker's offseason dedicated to learning

ASHBURN -- Perry Riley knew what the play was before the question was finished. The Jason Witten play. It irked him when it happened and remains a point of irritation. It's also a play, Riley hopes, that reveals his progress.

A year ago he was fooled by the play. This year he says he'll know better. Why? Because he knows more about what to look for from an offense. He reads formations better and understands coverages more. Training camp is for hope and optimism, and that's what Riley has when it comes to his growth as an inside linebacker.

It goes back to the Witten play. To recap: He misplayed a 59-yard touchdown pass to the Dallas tight end because he didn't realize it was his responsibility. In fairness, Riley had switched to London Fletcher's spot on the play. Still, Riley, making his second start at the time, learned a lesson. When he drops to the deep middle and there are two receivers to both sides, he can't lose sight of the inside guy on either side.

"If I had known that, I could have prevented that play," said Riley, entering his third season. "That play won't happen again. It's all experience."

In a 3-4 front, the inside linebackers must be solid in coverage or big plays occur. That's an area in which Riley knew he needed to improve. But he said his overall feel for the game is better.

"Last year I'd hear a play and cycle in your head, 'OK, where's my assignment?'?" he said. "This year I hear a play and I know my assignment. So when they break out of the huddle, I'm looking at my assignment and looking at him to get tips [on his intentions]."

Teammates notice the difference.

"His game is so much more elevated because of having a full offseason to get the nuances of the defense," Fletcher said. "Last year was a great experience. There were growing pains we had to deal with, but you can see the big improvement. He can play a lot faster."

Said Redskins coach Mike Shanahan: "[Riley is] really starting to become a student of the game. Being around a guy like London Fletcher I think really helps him, and you can see that he's getting better and better."

Another nuance Riley had to learn: how to react when a player goes in motion or when the defensive line shifts. Those precipitate a change in the linebacker's responsibility. Riley didn't always react accordingly and fill the correct gap.

"I didn't know that all the time last year," Riley said. "This year I'm on top of that. ... Sometimes it hurt us, and sometimes it didn't."

Riley made another change in the offseason. During the lockout he worked out with buddies thinking he was going at it hard. That wasn't the case this offseason, when he hired a personal trainer. He jotted down workouts for Riley and made sure he did them.

"He pushed me and he made sure I did it at the pace he wanted instead of the pace I wanted to do," Riley said.

Add it up and these are the reasons Riley feels good entering the season.

"I knew it was a lot," Riley said of playing linebacker in this defense, "but it was definitely overwhelming at times."

But that experience could pay off for him this season.